A man of many talents, many names and many lives
By Abigail Thorpe
Many in town know him simply as Fiddlin’ Red. He’s his own kind of local legend, who is known to be able to fix anything from old violins and fiddles to banjos, guitars and even wind instruments. If you ask him, he works on everything but pianos. Stepping in the quiet, peaceful shop on Church Street in Downtown Sandpoint, you’ll likely find him bent over an instrument, new or old, quietly working his magic to tempt some lightness of sound out of its hollow depths.
Today he is bent over a trumpet, working to fix the mouthpiece. He repairs all of the band instruments for the local schools—this is just one of them. The store is quiet, almost like stepping into another era. There are instruments all around, some new, some old. They seem to find their way into Red’s hands, just like the antique, meticulously restored banjo he often plays. “I attract them, they come to me, ‘Please, Red, help me,’” he smiles.
There are black-and-white drawings lining the walls, a few old signs, pictures and albums here and there—one of them his own from days back traveling with his folk band. Red plays the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar, but you get the feeling talking to him and watching him work that he could pretty much play any instrument he put his hand to. It’s a kind of magic he has—that unlearned ability to create music and find an instrument’s purest sound. It can’t really be taught, but somehow Red has it.
Fiddlin’ Red’s been known by a few names throughout his life—including Wild Bill Hickock (the resemblance is almost uncanny), but perhaps the best place to start Red Simpson’s story is back in California in the 1960s, when the music first spoke to him.
He was listening to the San Diego Folk Festival broadcast over the radio, and that was it. “I heard old timers, I just naturally thought, that's for me. Who knows what gives people their interests, we’re sort of born with them.” Having taught for over 50 years, Red has noticed some people are born to be musicians—from all indications, he is one of those people.
From the moment he first heard old-time music, Red was hooked. He taught himself to play the fiddle in high school by collecting records and learning from ear. He was playing live in bars before he graduated from high school—lying about his age to get in. He soon picked up the banjo and violin in the same way—by ear, simply listening to old records.
He dubbed himself Fiddlin’ Red—a name taken from old 78 records he had from the ‘20s and ‘30s that said Fiddlin’ Red Henderson or Fiddlin’ Red something else. “There must have been a lot of red-head fiddlers,” he laughs. He formed his first band, Fiddlin’ Red and the Old Scratch Band, and the group set out together in an old 1950s GMC truck with a gypsy wagon on the back to play the old gold rush towns in Northern California and make their first album.
“We sold several thousand of those record albums,” recalls Red. “We didn't make it big, we made it small. We played live on the radio in Los Angeles and became part of the San Diego Folk Festival.” That first album record hangs on the wall behind his work station—a memento of the beginning of what would be a lifelong story of following the music.
When the band broke up, Red continued to pursue his passion for old-time living. He started going to mountain man rendezvous and apprenticed with a blacksmith in Sonora, California, hitchhiking the 4-mile journey to the smithy. He became adept at making incredibly accurate reproductions of tools, knives and even flintlock rifles, and was even invited to co-teach a blacksmith seminar with Peter Ross—the master blacksmith from Colonial Williamsburg.
Around this time, as he puts it, he got “shanghaied” to Southern Oregon by a group of mountain men in need of a fiddler and blacksmith for weekend mountain man rendezvous. He started another band called the Bitter Lick String Band in the Grants Pass area and saved enough money to buy his own land: a plot in Northeastern Washington, near the Columbia River.
It marked the start of a 25-year-long span of living like a frontiersman. Red built two log homesteads while living on the property, hunting and fishing for his meals using the same tools and weapons as those frontiersmen who settled the Pacific Northwest many years before. In many ways, it was in his blood. His grandfather was a professional cowboy, and his great and great, great grandfathers were both stagecoach drivers back when the West was young and wild.
During this time, Red’s identity was forged by two separate forces: He was adopted by a Native American elder from the Colville Tribe and spent 15 years attending ceremonies and learning about native traditions. He also met up with a Buffalo Bill Wild West show touring the Northwest. He started playing old-time music for the show, and it wasn’t long before people started to notice his uncanny resemblance to Wild Bill Hickock.
And it wasn’t just in appearance—“I did a lot of study on his personality, and I feel like we're a bit alike. He was well liked by some and hated by others .... He was a good shot and dressed nice,” muses Red. “He played fiddle—it’s not well known that he did, but in his personal letters you could tell.”
Red now had yet another concurrent identity and spent the weekends touring the Northwest trick shooting, acting and playing music as Wild Bill Hickock.
Sandpoint entered Red’s life in the same way most of his experiences thus far had occurred: because of music. Sandpoint needed someone who did instrument repair, and Red had plenty of experience—from working at two guitar manufacturing companies in Southern California building instruments in 1973 to repairing antique instruments since high school and working at a music house in Colville for 25 years.
It was several years later that he opened Fiddlin’ Red’s Music—what he calls his retirement. “This is the first music store I've ever owned,” he says. “I can set the atmosphere for my own likes.”
Red plays local private parties and events with his four-piece band Fiddlin’ Red and the Wildwood as well as his duo with banjo player Chloey Davis, who also teaches in his store.
He once again lives in an old log home—this one built in the 1890s, before his time. It has electricity and running water, but he still uses kerosene lamps throughout, and the home has retained its old-time look and feel. For him, Sandpoint’s draw has been the people. From his students and customers to local fellow musicians, it’s become home to him. “There are a lot of musicians my same age who came from California,” he says. “When I moved here it was kind of like an old friend ... a lot of these people, we all performed in the same places.”
Walk in Red’s store today, and you instantly feel welcomed to another place and time. It’s obvious he loves music—and welcomes others to share in his passion for the historic instruments that still find their way into his shop, and the story each has to tell about another place and time.